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A treasury of talents

· In praise of the director of the Vatican Museums ·

There is a widespread opinion — and not even a recent one — that the Vatican is a repository for the conservation of very important artistic and cultural treasures which, however, are no longer of vital cultural significance: only erudition, not much life or intellectual passion. Joseph Ratzinger — a refined intellectual and a universally recognized figure — is now Pope, coupled with the work of Cardinal Ravasi in the Council for Culture, this impression is being eradicated.

To these two important names, another should be added: Antonio Paolucci, Director of the Vatican Museums, appointed by Benedict XVI. A small book, ( Arte e bellezza, La Scuola ) will help those who do not personally know Paolucci to discover this man, who is certainly one of the most serious and profound connoisseurs of contemporary art. He is also amusing and easy to talk to — far from the stereotype of the elitist and snobbish art expert whom one might expect to find in this post — and especially passionate about his work. He says, “beauty is not a question of philosophy, but of perception, of freedom. The approach to beauty is this: infinite curiosity, perceptiveness and therefore pure happiness without torment or philosophies”.

Happiness is the word that recurs most often throughout the book, understood as the fruit of a relationship to beauty and thus to art. The contemplation of the infinity of beautiful things that one can meet on a walk through Rome, for example, according to Paolucci, “would suffice to make us happy, at least for a while”. His work in the Museums is a reason for contentment, “when the late afternoon light of the Roman summer streams through the windows, I wander through the great halls observing the collections in silence and I quite simply feel happy”.

This booklet offers many interesting ideas, such as Paolucci’s proposal of a dream-museum, in which his favourite masterpieces of world art would be exhibited alongside less well-known works; a suggestion that allows one to glimpse through his words surprising aspects of maybe little known or even very popular works that for this very reason no longer arouse wonder. Or the suggestions he offers on how visitors may discover some of the less-known but extremely fascinating routes through the immense labyrinth of the Museums. A special feature of Paolucci is that he does not limit himself to an aesthetic vision of the conserved masterpieces but sees them in their living and historical dimension. So, for example, the restoration of the Pauline Chapel is closely connected to its function as the Pope's chapel, where the Blessed Sacrament is always kept, but also as the place where the aging Michelangelo painted St Peter who, offering himself up to martyrdom, raises his deep and thoughtful gaze towards the face of the Pontiff who enters to say to him, “ You are Peter … the cross is your destiny”. Likewise the Lapidary Gallery, a place which would seem to be one of the least intriguing, Paolucci says is testimony to a multiethnic and multicultural Rome, “the place where all peoples of the world encountered and measured up to each other… We are those people… we are born from that mix”.

Paolucci, formerly Italy’s Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities, bases his love for Italy on his love for history and art. Italy is the only country in the world, he says, in which its “patrimony is minutely present and universally distributed”, in which, therefore, the Museum extends beyond its own walls. In Italy and at the Vatican the idea of a museum was born “to cultivate memory and to exorcise insignificance and death”. Paolucci is against the commercial exploitation of this patrimony but reminds us that, “if there is a profit in Italy's cultural patrimony it is an induced profit. When someone… buys a suit, a pair of shoes, a bottle of Italian olive oil or wine, the appreciation of what is bought is the direct fruit of the hills of Siena, of the paintings of Leonardo…. This is an immeasurable value”.

Paolucci — favourable to every form of communication, to which he dedicates himself with skill and success — aims to balance the desire to keep the museum's opening hours as long as possible and to protect the treasures it contains from over-exposure to the public. He does not think a museum should become a place for socializing or entertainment: the Museum, he says, “is a little like a church; a place where the best in man is exalted and takes a form; and this is why culture needs talent, not money”.

The Vatican Museums have certainly found a talented treasure in their Director.

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Sept. 20, 2019

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